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Scottish Independence - The Scandinavian Model Shouldn't Be A Factor

Mal Fletcher
Posted 06 August 2014
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The much vaunted Scottish Independence debate last night turned out to be something of a non-event if you happen to live anywhere south of the border.

While the issue of whether Scotland should leave the UK is, by edict of David Cameron, for the Scots alone to decide, it is a decision in which the rest of the UK has an interest.

Sadly, it seems, certain TV executives assumed we’d all rather be watching Love Your Garden or Kids Behind Bars, a documentary about American young offenders.

ITV, the company with the rights to broadcast the debate, farmed it out to its Scottish subsidiary STV. The mother ship refused even to air it on its smaller ITV2, ITV3 and ITV4 platforms, which would have served a greater part of the nation.

If the Scots weren’t already angry with their Sassenach cousins, this apparent lack of interest in their future should get them riled.

Press reports today suggest it certainly had that effect on a few non-Scots in the Union.

In the end, STV made a feeble attempt to share the debate with the UK at large by streaming it live on their website. I say feeble because hardly anyone seems to have been able to get it to work – the demand overloaded the system.

All things considered, though, what started out as a major irritation turned into something of a boon – at least for this viewer. Rather than decamping to watch Alan Titchmarsh and his doubtless riveting ruminations on floriculture, I followed at least part of the debate on Twitter.

This is, of course, loaded with potential traps for the unwary or the politically naďve.

In the same way that unscrupulous hotel owners have their staff fill out positive online reviews about their services, political lobbyists (barely) disguised as wide-eyed citizens will take to social media to share their views on a debate.

If you read social media streams for no more than a few minutes, you’ll come away thinking that either side A or side B are scoring big-time over their hapless and ill-informed rivals. What was billed as a debate will look like a drubbing.

If you follow the social media coverage intermittently, you’ll likewise form the impression that one side or the other – or both – are spouting complete tosh and that the entire nation is incensed by it!

Because social media are built on stream-of-consciousness communication the comments you read at any given moment are locked onto only what has just been said. These comments provide no background or overview.

There is certainly no opportunity to gauge such things as body language or audience reaction, which are an important part of a public debate.

The limits placed on numbers of characters – Twitter’s 140 keystrokes, for example – allow little room for nuance. Everything must be said in the bluntest way possible. Attempts at irony are often misunderstood.

Social media platforms also produce the illusion that everyone is a broadcaster; that we're all imbued with the technological power to reach - and be heeded by - millions of people.

They may also contribute to delusions of grandeur, encouraging us to think that our comments are more insightful than they really are – after all, millions of people can potentially read them. In truth, even people with large numbers of social media followers can expect only a small number to notice a particular comment and far fewer to actually read it.

Indeed, the vast majority of social media streams attract only a handful of regular followers and even fewer occasional viewers. This might explain the frustration that drives so-called ‘trolls’ to bully, badger and insult their way around the twittersphere.

For all that, platforms like Twitter can be instructive. If, that is, if you keep in mind the likely myopia of individuals who feel so strongly about an issue that they’ll spend an hour or more hammering multiple hasty microblogs into overworked smartphones.

During this particular debate it was interesting to note how often Twitter supporters of independence referred to the ‘Scandinavian model’.

I’m not sure this featured much, if at all, in the debate itself – the newspaper reports I’ve seen don’t appear to mention it – but it seems to serve as a utopian standard of what might be achieved by brave Scotland were she to break ties with the UK.

My family and I lived in Scandinavia for just under a decade, starting in the mid-90s. We were based in Copenhagen, a beautiful, romantic city and, it has to be said, one that provides a great environment for raising children.

My work constantly took me to cities across the Nordic region.

I loved many aspects of living in Denmark and working closely with people in so many other parts of northern Europe. I still retain healthy links in some of those areas.

Still, I found the constant references to Scandinavia in last night’s social media coverage baffling.

Are some thinking Scots seriously suggesting that they might quite like to pay in the vicinity of 60 percent of their income to the state, in one tax or another?

Is being part of the UK so onerous that effectively working 60 percent of one’s time for the Scottish government would be a better option?

Has anyone stopped to consider that Norway, often held up as a paragon of virtue among small, plucky nation-states, is also among the highest taxed nations in the world? And that its tax rates remain high in spite of the fact that successive governments have stashed away mountains of Kroner from North Sea oil sales?

Yes, Scandinavia arguably enjoys a better standard of aged and health care than does the UK. Very high taxes are responsible for that.

They’re also responsible for giving nations like Denmark a much higher number of bureaucrats than the UK – at least on a per capita basis. As a result, Danes often face much tougher regulations and more obstructive procedures when it comes to starting businesses.

The much vaunted Nordic welfare state may pay for better hospitals, school facilities and prisons in many areas but it often seems to do little to encourage self-starting or individual enterprise.

By the time many entrepreneurial young people reach adulthood, their pioneer zeal has been quenched. They’re infected with the notion that whether they succeed or fail there will be little or no difference to their overall standard of living.

From experience, I know that there are wonderful exceptions to this, but the general rule remains intact.

What’s more, the idea that ultra-high taxation eliminates social ills, including social inequality – among migrant populations, for example – is a social democratic myth.

The Nordic countries have their own problems with poverty, employment and immigration, albeit different ones to our own.

In June 2010, the Danish government took the radical step of reducing the country’s four-year unemployment benefits period to help restore its finances in the wake of the financial crisis.

Danish studies had shown that the longer a person is without a job, the harder it is for them to get one. In part, this is because people often wait until they’re about to lose their benefits before seriously pursuing a new position, particularly if doing requires reinventing themselves through retraining. The shorter the time between losing one job and getting benefits, the better.

For Brits, the idea that one should have to take up only the job one is really looking for might seem a luxury. For many Danes and other Scandinavians it is seen as something of a right.

There is, of course, more than one Scandinavian model anyway. Each country in the region has its own important variations on the theme and Brits and others can learn much from Scandinavia. Taken as a whole, however, their social models arguably suit a mindset that is quite different from that found within the British Isles.

A former US ambassador to the Danes once wrote that Denmark is not so much a nation as a very large tribe. People have, over a long period of time, been conditioned to try to achieve the widest possible consensus on as many decisions as possible.

Change, therefore, is very slow – for an outsider, often frustratingly so – and once a semblance of agreement has been reached discordant voices are unwelcome. On an individual level, the drive to better oneself through conspicuous achievement is arguably tolerated rather than applauded.

In many areas, individual expression is not as important as groupthink.

The reader may find a level of over-simplification in all of this, but nowhere near as much as we hear from those who push Scottish independence on the basis that the nation should or could become another Nordic ‘miracle’.

In the end, the debate about independence may generate more heat than light, with some voters being swayed one way or the other largely on the basis of emotion.

As an Australian import to Britain I can understand the emotional pull of independence. Yet passion will not be enough to resolve important challenges that will arise should Scotland choose to remove itself.

Another factor that may play a decisive role in the outcome is the youth vote. Relatively recent polls suggest that young people, especially in the 16-17 bracket, are more likely to vote 'no' to independence.

This is the very age group Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond was hoping would boost his cause, when he insisted they be allowed to vote.

In general, the younger end of the Millennial generation are globalised from birth. Digital technologies and cheap travel have meant that they've grown up thinking of the world as their global village.

They naturally expect political leaders to address issues on a global rather than simply local scale. So, they're not naturally inclined to think that smaller is better.  

In the end, barring any significant seismic event between now and September’s vote, many Scots may come to believe that, feelings aside, there are many very pragmatic reasons to stay within the union.

In casting their ballot, they may acknowledge their hearts but vote with their heads.

Whatever the eventual outcome, while there may be good reasons for Scotland to break away, the Scandinavian argument should be laid to rest.

What’s your view?

Should Scotland Separate from the UK?



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